Byline: Nick Rufford
the 1970s he was Johnny Rotten, the frontman of the Sex Pistols and the angry face of punk rock. His hard-edged songs, including Anarchy in the UK, full of rage and nihilism, chimed with unemployment and industrial unrest in run-down Britain and attracted an army of safety-pin-pierced fans.
Today the safety pin John Lydon, now 65, wears holds together his broken spectacles. His home in sunny California is a long way from the UK and his daily routine is as far
from anarchy as he can manage. His wife, Nora Forster, 78, suffers from Alzheimer's disease and needs orderliness and calm, he says. Feeding, dressing and caring for her is a full-time job, to the point where he hasn't had time to go to the opticians, even though his eyesight is deteriorating and his glasses ? snapped by accident ? need replacing.
"Alzheimer's is a wicked, debilitating, slow, deliberate process, but we're going through that together," Lydon says. "She doesn't forget me. She forgets everything else but not me."
Nihilism has given way to stoicism and he's reconciled to the fact that Forster's condition is incurable and will never improve. "But forewarned is forearmed, and that's how it is, and you have to get to grips with it and lay offthe self-pity. That's one thing I can proudly say my mum and dad instilled in me from an early age: don't feel sorry for yourself, get on with it. These are
the cards you're handed and you play the game to the end to the best of your ability. God, you know, if Johnny bloody Rotten can do it, f***ing hell, what's your excuse?"
Lydon and Forster set up home in the US in the 1980s. He always calls her his wife, although it has never been clear if they actually married. The Sex Pistols had split up in 1978 amid bitter rows and Lydon wanted a fresh start. God Save the Queen, the band's second single after Anarchy, was banned by the BBC and most independent radio stations and they were dropped by two record labels. Even though the industry closed ranks against them, in two turbulent years from 1976 their unorthodox looks and anti-establishment lyrics ? penned by Lydon ? started a music and fashion trend and changed rock and pop for ever.
Belatedly their achievements were recognised when ? 30 years later ? they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, though they refused to attend the ceremony. In 1978 Lydon formed another band, Public Image Ltd, and went on to have more hits.
Lest he give the impression that he has surrendered entirely to his softer side, Lydon is still able to let rip with choice expletives. In his sights is a six-part film series called Pistol, directed by Danny Boyle, which is being made for the Disneyowned American streaming channel FX, based on Lonely Boy, the autobiography of Steve Jones, the Sex Pistols' guitarist.
Lydon alleges that a script has been written (by Craig Pearce and Frank Cottrell- Boyce) and an actor selected to play him (Anson Boon) without his participation or consent. He's now taking legal advice, he says. "Sorry, you think you can do this, like walk all over me ? it isn't going to happen. Not without a huge, enormous f***ing fight. I'm Johnny, you know, and when you interfere with my business you're going to get the bitter end of my business as a result. It's a disgrace. I fronted this band. I'm the man that wrote the words. I supplied the image and direction, and I think the questions hang on their actions here. If they needed to be this secret squirrel about it then they must have something to hide."
A spokesman for the Pistol production said the intention was always to
communicate with Lydon before filming began, and that Boyle wrote to him via his management company. He "wished to speak with Mr Lydon personally about the production of Pistol. Ultimately, however, direct contact was declined."
Lydon insists he's been excluded. "If you put me in a corner like a rat, I'm going to go for your throat. I'm up against here some corporations that just want to take over." Alluding to Disney, he says: "Poor old Johnny Rotten is the victim of Mickey Mouse."
He was enraged by recently released publicity shots of the series. "I think that's the most disrespectful s*** I've ever had to endure. I mean they went to the point to
hire an actor to play me but what's that actor working on? Certainly not my character. It can't go anywhere else [but court]," he fumes, before adding: "And I've met [Boyle] before. It's not like we're complete strangers."
He says the first time they met was during Boyle's preparations for the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. "He wanted to put together a collage of Pistols tunes and I went down to a little studio somewhere in the East End and approved of what he was doing. You know, he was quite good. It was quite hilarious actually to show snippets of God Save the Queen and Pretty Vacant to all of the royal family."
Leaked reports suggest Boyle's series will depict a dark comedy side to the Sex Pistols ? the opposite of the twisted malevolence Malcolm McLaren, the band's manager, sold to the press and public. Jones's myth-busting autobiography, published in 2016, suggested that Lydon came from a loving family background and had taken singing lessons, while Glen Matlock, the grammar school-educated bassist, was allegedly sacked for being too posh (Matlock says he left after disagreements with Lydon).
Matlock was replaced in 1977 by Sid Vicious, a college friend of Lydon's whose real name was John Ritchie and who was renamed after Lydon's hamster. Vicious died two years later from a heroin overdose after his arrest for allegedly stabbing his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen, to death in a New York hotel room. According to Jones his musical abilities were so limited he had to be taught where to put his fingers on the fretboard. Jones said that he himself was
sent to a Harley Street doctor to achieve the semi-emaciated look wanted by McLaren. He also claimed that Lydon's spitting habit was the result of a sinus problem rather than an act of defiance.
The dispute has spilt over into a court case over the Pistols' back catalogue of songs. Paul Cook, the drummer, and Jones were last month reported to have launched a lawsuit against Lydon, sealing the end of the band "once and for all", according to music industry sources.
Living near the beach in Marina del Rey, a seaside suburb of Los Angeles, gives Lydon respite from his travails. "I am an early riser, I really am," he says. "I love that first ray of sun that comes up. That's something that I never really experience in England. You're living in London most of your life and you don't know if it's morning, mid-afternoon or a rainy evening. It's always overcast. So that's the difference. Blue skies do cheer me up."
Their house was built in 1910 for the actress Mae West. He and Forster bought it more than three decades ago. "[Mae West] built the house next door for her want-tobe-lover Rudolph Valentino and that didn't happen because she found out he was gay. Our house is a bit spooky and very old and very small, but it's very lovely and we play with the lighting to look like a haunted castle late at night."
When I phone him he's making a cup of tea, wearing his broken spectacles and a T-shirt acquired from a firm of local plumbers who repaired the antiquated pipes in the house. "It's
black and in white lettering it's written 'Sewer Technician'," he says, laughing. "I had to have one." Notoriously shy of being photographed, he has reluctantly agreed. "The modern electronic things [digital cameras], they're too darn accurate," he jokes. "They're horrible if you have any kind of conceit about yourself because they will absolutely turn wrinkles into crevices."
He has another house in Malibu and one in London and is lucky enough, he says, to
have the money to look after Forster. Since the onset of her illness she has accidentally started fires in two of the properties. Lydon has had to replace gas stoves with electric hobs and now prepares the food himself.
"[Caring for Nora] is all self-funded. That's not a problem. There really isn't any help for this as an illness. It's such a huge unknown. I'm constantly on the lookout for any connections to food sources or whatever, but Nora has never eaten processed food in her life. She eats healthy vegetables. I know because I'm the cook. It must be genetic, but I'm absolutely open to ideas."
Air travel frightens her and she gets disorientated in hotels, Lydon says. "Airports will completely screw with her. There's too much going on and her brain will just freak out and she'll panic and suddenly not know why she's there and everything becomes an
instant threat. She needs to know things are hers: this is my chair, this is my teddy bear, these are important."
She carries a pink teddy for comfort, and she and Lydon spend more and more time in their "castle". "Our favourite thing is watching comedies together. We've always done that but now there's more intensity. [And] news channels ? so long as there's a ticker tape running along the bottom. She will read that and catch every word. That keeps the brain alert.
"I know it's going to deteriorate into something really, really terrible, but we're facing it with a sense of dignity. I mean, it would be easy enough to run away and say, 'Oh, it's not my responsibility; things aren't the same'. Bollocks to that. I'm John. When I make a commitment it's for ever and I stand by that and I'm very proud to do the best I can for her. We've been together now 45 years; we're not going to change anything.
You know, what's an illness between true friends, man and wife, lovers, whatever you want to call it? We are a proper pair of people who love and adore each other."
Forster is still physically fit. "Bloody hell she's so much fitter than me. [She] has always been an outdoorsy, gregarious, fun-loving, any-adventure kind of person. If we go for a walk along the beach, by God, she'd be out of sight in minutes."
He is determined to look on the bright side, but admits that caring for Forster ? whom he affectionately calls Babbie ? has at times left him in deep despair. "You can as a full-time carer get quite suicidal. I will have moments that are overwhelmingly sad and at the same time full of rage. But things are what they are, and you have to take that and accept it and, sadly I've got to say, almost enjoy it for the experience.
"You don't have those moments [of despair] for very long. You're quickly knocked back into reality when a piss pot is kicked over. I'm not saying she has a major problem with that ? I'm trying to paint the vision for you. But there can be accidents and you've just got to deal with it and get on with it. Just take it as it is and keep yourself intact mentally and be proud of what you're doing. Life must continue to the absolute; you must fight for life to the very bitter end."
His determination to see it through owes a great deal to his own childhood, he says. He grew up with Irish parents and three younger brothers in a flat offHolloway Road in north London. At the age of seven he contracted spinal meningitis and spent a year in hospital. When he emerged from a coma he was unable even to recognise his parents. He had to relearn how to walk, talk and feed himself. "When you experience a loss of memory it's the most terrifying thing. That sense of [being] abandoned, and no one is telling you anything except these strangers that keep turning up you don't recognise: Mum, Dad, what's that? I could barely communicate.
"I certainly didn't know how to use a knife and a fork or anything. I was just basically a spoon-fed zombie and I could quite easily have turned into an institutionalised zombie. You know, Mum and Dad are from the school of hard knocks and they took the wisdom of the doctor:
don't give him an easy time or he'll just fall into laziness; keep his brain thinking and alert. And these are the skills I'm now applying to my lovely wife. I hope they're skills; by God they worked for me."
The meningitis left him with his own legacy of ill health, including eyesight problems. "What I have is floaters. Sometimes it is black dots that float around inside my eye; the others look like hair strands so I'm constantly thinking my hair is in my eye but it's not. [But] there's no way I can take a day out and leave Babbie alone just on some selfish [vision] problem. My eyesight was definitely affected by the meningitis when I was young but age creeps in too. My main issue is sunlight ? sunlight really, really exacerbates it."
Lydon met Forster at the fashion store called Sex, on the Kings Road, west London, owned by the designer Vivienne Westwood and her then partner, McLaren. It was 1975 and Forster, scion of a wealthy German publishing family, was working in London as a music promoter. "She shone, she glowed, from way across the other side of the room," Lydon wrote in one of his three autobiographies. "Nora loathed me at first sight."
The couple never had children but Lydon helped raise Forster's daughter, Ariane, from a previous marriage, to Frank Forster, a German singer. At the age of 14 Ariane formed the punk band the Slits as its lead singer, Ari Up. Lydon believes Nora showed the first signs of Alzheimer's after Ariane died of breast cancer 11 years ago, at the age of 48. "A real sadness filled her because that's an inexplicable pain for a mother to lose her daughter. From there on it was small issues like constantly losing keys and it builds up over time. It happened so gradually, so slowly, that by the time it becomes a definite it's impossible to trace it through."
It's poignant that a man once banned by the BBC for insulting the monarchy and regarded as a peril to the nation's youth is now a heart-warming inspiration to families of dementia sufferers whose condition demands round-the-clock care. Has his attitude to the monarchy mellowed?
"I feel sorry for them and I always have because ? they're trapped in gilded cages
not of their own design. That's not a proper way to be treating human beings at all. So I have a sense of empathy."
He doesn't blame Harry and Meghan, now fellow residents of the Golden State, for quitting their royal duties, but thinks they've gone about things the wrong way.
"It seems like petulance when they
flutter their wings and cry 'freedom' but it's not. They're seriously prisoners. Everybody seems ever so willing to adopt a side and be spiteful with it. My advice to them is they should mind their own business too, and if you want out of the public awareness then don't go on the Oprah show. It can only end badly for you. You don't put your head in the guillotine or the chopping block, dears, because someone will quite happily press that button." The best example they could set would be to get proper jobs, he says. "Listen, there's many a McDonald's both here and in Britain that are more than willing to take on either one or both of them and then they can be truly independent earning their own money."
In 2008 Lydon fronted a successful TV advertising campaign for Country Life butter that nearly doubled its sales (catchline: "It's not about Great Britain, it's about great butter"). It showed him waving a Union Jack at what appeared to be a royal motorcade. He's been called a national treasure and there have been efforts to have him knighted. Has he turned establishment?
"Ha! That's just one of those wonderful fibs that float around. My immediate response is, like, why would I allow that woman to have a sword in her hand over my head? Mother Lydon didn't raise foolish children, you know."
He says he became an American citizen in 2013 after "untold grief " from immigration authorities while travelling back and forth from Britain ? "partly because of my old amphetamine conviction in 1977, which still showed up despite me holding an American green card", he wrote in his book Anger Is an Energy. California is in any case a much better place to grow old. "England is absolutely dedicated to humiliating you into old age. It kills and stifles creativity. You're supposed to be dead at 40 and the rest of your life you're supposed to rot in
misery. Thank God for California. They go bungee jumping here at 85. It's full-on activity keeping the brain alive."
His passion for the US hasn't dimmed, he says. "I love being on a tour bus because I just stare out the window. I'm utterly amazed and transfixed by the difference of scenery from one state to another. The forests up north and the swamps down south, all of it, it's lovely. The people are very, very varied and very forgiving. A new country, new open-mindedness I suppose. Like they're not really stuck down and nailed to the floor by class warfare."
He's critical of "wokeness", believing it's a device used by the privileged to keep the working class in their place. "These people aren't really genuinely disenfranchised at all. They just view themselves as special. It's selfishness and in that respect it's divisive and can only lead to trouble. I can't believe that TV stations give some of these lunatics the space. Where is this 'moral majority' nonsense coming from when they're basically the ones doing all the wrong for being so bloody judgmental and vicious against anybody that doesn't go with the current popular opinion?"
Surprisingly, perhaps, given his antiestablishment past, he condemns the tearing down of statues and attacks on the reputation of historical figures, especially Winston Churchill. "This man saved Britain. Whatever he got up to in South Africa or India beforehand is utterly irrelevant to the major issue in hand. We are not walking up and down the high street with jackboots and helmets because of that man. The Nazis were the biggest race haters of all, ever, in the history of the planet so thank you again, Winston.
"I heard some nonsense about somebody not wanting [Rule, Britannia!] played. But stop it. It's a song. You can't go back and rewrite history. If you start eliminating those things, well, you have no future. That's kind of what I was warning about when I wrote the bloody song [God Save the Queen]. I could see this s*** coming."
Lydon blames the modern vogue for correctness partly on an educational system steeped in right-thinking and intolerance. "It's just horribly, horribly tempestuous spoilt children coming out of colleges and
universities with s*** for brains. And I put that in the most polite way."
During last year's presidential election he declared Donald Trump the true working-class candidate. He says Trump's defeat was due partly to television bias. "The mainstream media [depicted Trump supporters as] redneck, gun-toting, moronic race haters and that is absolutely not the truth. It's regular working people, people who own businesses, people who own little corner stores or gas stations. They're Donald Trump supporters. They work hard for their families, and they want to be respected. People have been so misled into hating a human being ? Trump ? just on the whim of the media. Four solid years of CNN hatred has done a lot of damage to this country. He's not a politician and why should he be; we've all had enough of politicians."
Could Trump make a comeback? "The only place he's gone away from is Twitter. I think we all know where he stands clearly and who could ask for anything more? I always hated Margaret Thatcher, but the one thing I respected about her was, by God, this woman was not for turning. That's how I view things."
On Joe Biden, he says: "You have a Democrat party that doesn't respect anything but the latest woke fashion trend and that's to the destruction of America. I'm watching America now collapse because of the Biden nonsense."
He had, however, supported President Obama's healthcare plans and believes firmly in the principle of the NHS. Two of his three brothers have been treated for cancer, he says. "Thank you, National Health, because it saved my brother who had throat cancer. Another brother has a
very troublesome cancer that is seriously jeopardising his life."
Lydon has said that people he has lost, including his parents and Sid Vicious, appear in his dreams. And he says that, contrary to Pistols folklore that Spungen got Vicious hooked on heroin, Sid's mother used the drug. "I remember one birthday she actually bought him some heroin and a hypodermic, that was his birthday present. You know at 17, 18, this is not on. So you try to help people, but sometimes there are
people you can't help. They want it that way. Sid was always a bit of a romantic and so he'd see the wonderful mystery and the glory of being a heroin addict in New York from listening to too many Lou Reed albums. 'Just imagine what a fun time could be had by all if you're all smacked out of your head with no obligations to anyone'. It's a very childish viewpoint but then Sid was innocent ? you know, guilty of lots of things but mentally innocent."
Lydon was reportedly excluded from a bar where he was planning to celebrate his 62nd birthday for "being too drunk", but he has curtailed his vices. "I can't be a drunkard any more ? I'm a full-time carer," he says. His addiction now is to computer games and he admits to having spent $10,000 on in-game purchases.
"It was a PiL [Public Image Ltd] band member telling me to get an iPad. Once I'd got one I'd never look back. It would change my life. I went straight into all the games and I found one called Real Racing 3. You just race these realistic looking cars around realistic tracks and there's always, like, "buy this" at a discount price, little ads that creep in, and I stupidly went for the lot. Worse than a drug addict really, and no concept of what I was doing until the bill came in. And wow. Everyone around me hammered me for that and quite rightly so."
Lydon says he's writing new material for PiL, though Covid has put back plans to play live. "I'm working with the band over the internet. We've found FaceTime to be very useful for that, swapping ideas, and that happens late at night when we have an hour or two. It's a great cheery-up moment. I'm not writing self-pity woeful songs and dirges. I go to my happy place and that's what songs are for, to solve problems."
He recently self-published a third autobiography, I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right. Steering clear of leading publishers has given him freedom to decide the content, though it pushed the price to a not-very-working-class PS45. "When I've done this in the past they've [publishers] been awful with their censorship or rewritings. You lose your natural way of talking because it's all subverted into the Queen's language and 'Cor blimey, I don't talk like that, guv'."
He's planning a promotional trip to Britain this summer and will have to leave Forster with professional carers ? the first time he's done so for any length of time. Lydon says he's relieved to have the chance to talk about Forster's Alzheimer's and hopes his experience could comfort others. "I really thank you for giving me the opportunity, because there will be people that will read this and go, 'Ah! That's helpful.' " His advice to those in similar circumstances contrasts starkly with "No future" ? the famous refrain from God Save the Queen. Now he says: "Eliminate self-pity and deal with an obvious tragedy openmindedly. Know what it is and accept it. This is how the cards have fallen. This is what it is. This is your future. But that's not the end of your future. You will have a life afterwards. You can only hope." n
Visit johnlydon.com for information on the new book, I Could Be Wrong, I Could Be Right, and for details of his autumn Q&A tour in the UK. The documentary The Public Image Is Rotten is now available on all leading streaming services
"You can as a full-time carer get quite suicidal. I have moments that are overwhelmingly sad and at the sametime full of rage" "My advice to Harry and Meghan: there's many a McDonald's that are more than willing to take them on" He was enraged by publicity shots of the new Sex Pistols drama: "That's the most disrespectful s*** I've ever had to endure"
SIDE BY SIDE Lydon and Nora Forster met in 1975 and have been together ever since
boy bAnd From left: john and brothers bobby and jimmy, with mum eileen
never mind the jubilee Sid vicious, left, lydon and Steve jones play on a boat on the thames in june 1977 as the Sex Pistols mark the release of God Save the Queen
ire starters Lydon, top, appearing in a butter commercial in 2008. above: sid vicious and Nancy spungen in 1978
New wave vicious, Lydon and Jones as portrayed in Danny Boyle's new series, Pistol